The temporary base was a seedy underground bar, clearly taken over by some sort of paramilitary group. Apparently, Winged Girl’s team was not the only one that had been out tonight. The place milled with dark-clothed people, no longer hiding the dull gold, tree-shaped insignias on their collars, high-fiving each other over the night’s multiple—and presumably successful—operations.
Most looked to be about twenty. All were stronger mages than anyone else Amber had met back on Ravin. She sat on a stool at the quieter, shadowed end of the bar, where she’d been told to wait for the unknown Master Zoya. She didn’t feel sleepy anymore, just gritty-eyed and very angry. The longer she sat, the harder and colder her anger got. Amber’s freezing again, as her brother Rudi would say, which usually led to her siblings competing against one another over who’d be the first to make her laugh.
Her brothers and sister weren’t here tonight. Just this bunch of ale-swilling strangers, pumped up on their own power.
“Hey, there, Blondie.” A tray thumped onto the counter, followed by a tankard which slopped weak ale. Kael beamed and pushed a plate toward her. “I brought you something to eat.”
I’m not blond! Amber looked at the plate and shuddered. She knew those sticky pink-frosted buns. Her stomach wasn’t ready to handle such rich food. “No, thanks, I’m not hungry.”
“I’m famished.” Kael devoured a sticky bun in two mouthfuls. He nudged the tankard toward her. “Have something to drink at least.”
Does he want me to share his ale? “I don’t think it’d be a very good idea right now.”
“True. You look awful. We didn’t scare you too much, I hope.”
No, of course not. I live for those nights when a bunch of over-powered combat mages busts through the ceiling. Amber eyed the youth. The pale feathers braided into his hair trailed behind his right ear and caught the light in delicate, pearly tones, as if they were made of mineral rather than organic material. The effect against the rest of his outfit—pants, short-sleeved tunic, vest, all in a state of dishevelment—and his general careless attitude, was incongruous.
“Hey,” said Kael between mouthfuls. Bad table manners, Amber added to her list of his flaws. “Thanks for the help with the nodes back in the warehouse. You’re a pattern mage, aren’t you?”
Amber made a noncommittal noise. Papa was a lawyer—she knew to be careful with her words. Your Honor, I can truthfully say I didn’t reply in the affirmative.
“I knew it back at the bakery. You’re the one who fixed the balance of those spells. It was giving me a horrible headache.”
Startled, Amber asked, “You saw the spells?”
“Nah, I just sensed the imbalance. I can’t do a thing about them, though.” Kael downed the ale, waved the tankard for more. “Hey, Jex, I’ll take some if you’re pouring.”
A huge shirtless man, with dark skin and more scars than Amber would’ve thought possible, grinned and poured ale out of a massive keg he held in one enormous hand.
A sun mage with pattern mage senses? This isn’t right. Even Amber hadn’t noticed that mild imbalance until she’d gone looking for it. Or else my overpowering hunger disguised it. But still—he noticed it right away. From the outside.
“That was a neat trick, getting inside the warehouse in the first place.” Kael was downright chatty. If he hadn’t been so focused on the buns, Amber might’ve thought he was interested in her. “What were you doing in there, anyway?”
“I was hired to find something. That something just happened to be in the warehouse. The fact that my timing coincided with your operation was just bad luck on my part.” Amber clenched her fingers in her mist cloak. The celebratory atmosphere in the room—the noise, the excitement, the obvious verve and vim—only served to make her feel smaller and greyer. Did sun mages re-charge themselves by leaching energy from others? There were those stories that filtered out from Serepentina, that long island nation of sun mages that had sought to conquer the known world only about a decade ago…
“Aw, don’t say that. I think it was rather good luck.” Kael winked at her.
Is this a pick-up line? thought Amber in disbelief. But he had gone back to stuffing his face with fried chicken, so it couldn’t be.
A sudden hush filled the room. Glancing over Kael’s shoulder, Amber saw several people entering. This group was composed of adults, all competent and tough-looking, silent and shielded. At the front of it strode a woman whose very presence commanded attention. She was not tall, not beautiful, but her very bearing spoke of both controlled power and an unquestioning acceptance of it.
Amber looked at the cut of the newcomer’s clothing, at the semi-uniforms of her escort, and thought, Uh-oh.
Serepentine mages. Most of whom had been kicked out of their home country and sent into exile for crimes too heinous for even that militaristic culture.
And they were here.
“Master Zoya will want to talk to you.” Kael waved a chicken leg in the woman’s direction. “And”—he grimaced—“me, too. Don’t look like that, Blondie. She’ll go easier on you than on me. You didn’t destroy half a warehouse.
“I’m not blond,” said Amber.
“Really?” He peered critically at her hair. “Looks blond to me. Maybe it’s the light.” He shrugged.
“Kael!” The winged girl, still in her ludicrous outfit, beckoned ferociously from across a nearby round table. “Stop eating and get over here.”
“In a mo, Lisette.” Kael stood up and stretched, making alarming popping noises. His power, even shielded, beat against Amber’s senses. “I’ll walk you home once Master Zoya’s done with you.” He snagged another bun and sauntered away. “Later, Blondie.” An upraised hand, and then Lisette fell on him and dragged him away.
Blondie is better than baby doll, but not by much. Amber eyed the Zoya person, now surrounded by minions reporting to her. Lisette hung at the edges, waiting her turn. Zoya obviously heard something she didn’t like; she turned and glared at someone—maybe it was Kael? Amber’s stomach dropped at the look.
That lady is bad news. And this whole group is up to its neck in something I want no part of. Time for my vanishing trick.
Amber smoothed her hands down her mist cloak, fingers trailing a pattern. Good, no one’s looking. Everyone’s watching this Zoya chew Kael out. She knotted the ties together, put the hood over her head, slipped off the stool.
Na ni no nee. You can’t see me. I’m just a puff of air. And soon I’ll disappear. Amber said the rhyme over and over in her head. This was her oldest piece of magic, one she’d discovered as a child, something she’d been able to do without even knowing how. The pattern surrounded her like a spider’s web, a faintly-gleaming grey. She walked into the shadows between the strands, and they seemed to enfold her, hiding her from view. The web glowed brighter, drawing attention away from her. The rest of the world became fuzzy and indistinct. She felt as if she moved under water.
Amber crept around the edges of the room, navigating sprawled legs, dropped packs, and protruding weapons. As she neared the door, Zoya said, low and severe, “Three reports of loud noises and one of fire. No, don’t even tell me. I know it was Kael.”
Amber couldn’t help taking a quick peek over her shoulder. Kael stood out, his presence like a twisting spire of open flame even in this room full of magical luminaries. But Zoya next to him was a dense mass of power, obsidian, mostly-hidden. Amber hunched under her cloak, trying to make herself even more unnoticeable. She had the uncomfortable feeling this Zoya would see more than she let on.
I’m just a puff of air. Amber stood by the doorway, next to a guard who was deaf and blind to her presence. There was a small twist of magic, the door opened, and another sun mage entered, stamping his boots.
And soon I’ll disappear! Amber slipped through the narrow gap before it could close, hurried up five stone steps to street level, and took in a deep breath of warm, salted Hopeswell air.
Author’s Note: Out of the frying pan and into the fire! Amber’s not having a very good night so far. I bet she wishes she’d never taken on this job! But she managed to escape–for now, at least.